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Denver zoo mourns loss of lion ‘Rian’

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(Photo: Denver Zoo)

Rain, who was euthanized after a battle with cancer. (Photo: Denver Zoo)

Rain, who was euthanized after a battle with cancer. (Photo: Denver Zoo)

DENVER — A 15-year-old South African Lion named “Rian” was euthanized Wednesday after zookeepers said he was suffering from cancer in the spleen.

Rian had recently undergone surgery and chemotherapy for an aggressive cancer in his spleen, said zoo spokesperson Sean Andersen-Vie.

Veterinarians hoped the treatment would extend Rian’s life, while also giving them insight into how chemotherapy could help other zoo lions.

“Unfortunately, on the morning of Wednesday, June 19, zookeepers noticed that his quality of life had decreased to the point that they decided to humanely euthanize him,” Andersen-Vie said.

“This decision was very difficult. Rian has been a treasured member of the Denver Zoo family for so long and we were hoping for a recovery,” says Denver Zoo Curator of Large Mammals Hollie Colahan. “When Rian began treatment we were encouraged as he was improving – showing more energy and his appetite improved. Unfortunately, he took a turn for the worse over the last two days and we didn’t want him to suffer. We will miss him dearly.”

Rian started therapy in mid-March after zookeepers noticed he was lethargic. During a surgery, veterinarians found his spleen had grown to almost 12 pounds — about 10 times the normal size.

The spleen had a type of cancer known as high-grade splenic lymphoma, Andersen-Vie said. Even after the spleen was removed, the cancer had migrated to other parts of Rian’s body.

Collaborating with specialists with Colorado State University, zookeepers and veterinarians elected to start chemotherapy, alternating between intravenous and oral treatments, something that has never been performed on a lion before.

Initially, zookeepers and veterinarians were encouraged by his early results.

“Originally we did see incremental levels of improvement in Rian, but in the last couple days it became evident his quality of life was quickly diminishing and we decided it was time to say goodbye,” says Staff Veterinarian Dr. Betsy Stringer. “We are very thankful for all the help and expertise CSU doctors provided, but we knew there was a good chance this might not work. We hope some of what we learned with Rian will help another lion down the road.”

Rain, and his brother, are bachelor lions who were born at the Knoxville Zoo in Tennessee.

The two are longtime favorites among zoo visitors and are known for mutually affectionate behavior in their home at the zoo’s Predator Ridge exhibit, Andersen-Vie said.

Denver Zoo is currently home to five other lions; females Natal and Baby, and males Rajah and Krueger. Sabi is a 1-year-old female cub who arrived as a gift from the Royal Family of Qatar with her two brothers on a temporary basis in late 2012; Sabi will remain at Denver Zoo for the time being.